Sunday, May 29, 2011

Five Suggestions to Save Cinema Exhibition at Grauman's Chinese Theatre

This is the weekend that Don Kushner and Elie Samaha officially took the reins at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and they’ve managed to still maintain radio silence on any future plans with the registered historical landmark. As the saying goes, the silence has been deafening. But to which end? No news is good news? Or are they’re hoping to quietly destroy the theatre’s legacy (to the extent possible after Mann’s bungled operation the last few years)? Perhaps it’s likely that they still haven’t decided what the hell they are going to do, though you’d kind of hope that if they were going to purchase the theatre they had an inkling of what they planned to do with it.

Shortly we will know if the Chinese will just be a tourist façade, an actual operating theatre or Studio 54 for the new millennium (I vomited a little in my mouth upon typing that.) Call me an idealist, but I don’t think normal exhibition is doomed to fail at the Chinese, it’s just been so mangled by Mann’s unwillingness to change, financial inability and woeful mismanagement when the Arclight became the standard by which Los Angeles locales judge their cinema going experience.

So as a public service act to those that will be operating the (I know I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating) historical landmark and most famous theatre in the world, let me offer five suggestions/ways to reinvigorate exhibition at the theatre. Some of these may come across as pie-in-the-sky dreams of a cinephile, but fuck it; these are pie-in-the-sky dreams of a cinephile.

1.) Focus on Exclusive Premiere Engagements

Did you know before those mall and shopping center based theatres proliferated, you know the theatres that we started going to instead of prestigious one screen theatres that required a bit more of an effort to make it to and now complain ruined the movie going experience with all the commercials and people talking and texting throughout the feature but fail to see the irony of our culpability in (whoa, sorry that went somewhere unexpected…no offense, well at least not too much offense I hope), anyway before those aforementioned multiplexes became the norm, a film would generally open in only one or two theatres in a town. In Los Angeles that meant that say, Star Wars, would open on one screen in Westwood (the AVCO) and one screen in Los Angeles proper (the Chinese). And if you wanted to see Star Wars, well you had to drive or take the bus and wait in line. I remember when I was six years old and E.T. was only playing at the Century 22 in San Jose (it may have been on two screens there) and my parents took me, and all the way in the car I was like “la la la I am going to see E.T. in your face!” only to get to the theatre to discover, gasp, the film was completely sold out for the entire day and I would not be seeing E.T. la la la. Obviously it was crushing, and while I am not a parent yet, I imagine that’s a pretty hard situation to deal with. But when I finally did see E.T., guess what, it was even more special and magical. Nowadays E.T. would open on 4,000 screens and be playing every hour on the hour so you could catch a show between getting your car’s oil changed and enjoying a mocha latte Frappuccino. Also thanks to the internet we’d know what E.T. looked like, have the whole fucking film spoiled a week before it opens by Jeffrey Wells and already form our opinion based on the trailer we watched repeatedly on iTunes, but that’s beside the point. You could pretty much draw a straight line that depicts the dip in quality of mainstream blockbuster film to the expansive openings of said film. Why would there be any interest in making say Pirates of the Caribbean 4 (to cite a recent example I have not seen nor desire to see but judging from reliable sources is a piece of shit) be any good when it makes seventy percent of its gross opening weekend before word of mouth spreads.

Anyway, I am going to be a realist and say that we will never see mainstream blockbuster films open at only one theatre in a given city at a given time ever again. However, stuff like Terrence Malick’s Palm D’or winning Tree of Life which opens exclusively at (well, I’ll be) the Arclight this weekend, and other arthouse, Academy Award hopefuls, independent buzz films and auteur driven curios open to exclusive engagements in Los Angeles and New York all the time. Tree of Life this week and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris last week being two prime recent examples. And, hell there’s nothing an Angeleno likes better than bragging about seeing a film before anyone else. After I saw an exclusive preview of There Will Be Blood, I would pick up random telephone books for Midwest cities and call strangers and say “hey man, I don’t know you but have you seen the new PT Anderson film, its freaking amazing! What? It’s not opening till the end of January and you’re completely snowed inside anyhow. Sucker!” Hell, I even do it for films I don’t catch until later in their runs, like when I was up for Christmas and my wife’s aunt said they just saw The Fighter which had opened there that weekend, and I replied “oh that’s been playing in LA for weeks now”, in fairness though people in the Bay Area like to brag about how superior they are to Los Angeles (and in further fairness, I lived in the bay area for 26 years). But back to my point, Midnight in Paris had a huge opening weekend per screen average, and I am guessing Tree of Life will probably have the same. I would imagine the same people who like to be the first to see these types of films will be just as open to going to see them at the Chinese as they are at the Arclight. It would give the theatre a bit of an identity and I am sure be more fortuitous than the feature currently playing there, Jumping the Broom…now in its fourth fucking week!

2.) Fuck Competition, Wave Territorial Rights

In all likelihood, this would probably be the most likely option. It’s also the one I am least in favor of, but if it will save the Chinese, I’ll deal. First though, if you will pardon, let me start this with another personal history lesson. In 1994, when I was a freshman in college, I began working for a movie theatre, the United Artist Metro Center 6 (Colma represent!). Because of territorial rights we could only play films there were not playing at any other theatre in a certain mile radius to our theatre. That meant the other three theatres in this radius: the Century Plaza 8, a two plex General Cinemas theatre and another six plex, the Serramonte 6, could not have the same film playing at the other’s theatre. So basically in this area you would have 22 screens and with the exception of big releases that opened on multiple screens each theatre had to program different films for each screen. The Serramonte theatre showed second run fare, and the General Cinemas seem to exclusively play films from either Paramount or Columbia studios, while the UA and the Century divided the rest of the films. This resulted in, primarily during the spring and fall when there wasn’t a new Batman or Die Hard film opening, theatres taking fliers on more interesting programming. In the span of my working there, either the Century 8 or Metro 6 would play such usually arthouse/independent theatre regulated fare as Before Sunrise, Shallow Grave, Death and the Maiden and Trainspotting. Today all four of those theatres are closed, demolished or refurbished into other business. In their stead is one newer Century theatre with twenty screens. That’s two less screens than fifteen years ago. Interested in what’s playing on those twenty screens today? The Hangover 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, Pirates 4, Bridesmaids, Thor, Fast Five, Rio and with one or two showings each: Priest and Something Borrowed. That’s a total of nine films, all of which are wide releases produced by major conglomerates.

A few years ago Warner Brothers actually experimented with opening Terminator: Salvation both at the Chinese and the Arclight (maybe even the Cinerama Dome too). The main issue is that while there is a six screen multiplex attached with the Chinese, it does a fraction of the business that the Arclight with its reserved seating, ample parking and no talking rule enforcement. And since Joe Blow Big Studio wants to maximize profits, it’s more financially rewarding to open a film on three screens at the Arclight, then at the Chinese and two of their multiplex screens (full disclosure: I have never been to the current incarnation of the multiplex associated with the Chinese). But if say Warner allowed The Hangover part II to open at both the Chinese and the Arclight, it will be further on the way to global domination than they already are. Now obviously less choice is bad for the consumer (or at least this consumer), and I would hope that since they are one of only three (the other being the Disney film exclusively running El Capitan) single screens remaining in the area that the Cinerama Dome and Chinese would not be showing the same film at the same time, because that would blow. But perhaps using this weekend’s two big releases: The Hangover II could open at the Chinese and three screens at the Arclight while Kung Fu Panda 2 could play at the Cinerama Dome.

3.) Turner Classic Movies Cinemas

Okay, I am about to propose that the Chinese becomes a repertory theatre, before you scoff too much big business executives, please hear me out (I do realize they’re not reading this, but hey…) In April and May of the last two years Turner Classic Movies has operated a film festival of classic cinema with the Chinese being home base for some prestigious event screenings such as The Good, The Bad and the Ugly with a Q and A with Tucco himself, Eli Wallach, and Reds with Alec Baldwin moderating a discussion with Warren Beatty. Obviously the logistics of programming a festival like atmosphere for a theatre year round would be damn near impossible. However, what if, like the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, they show one classic film a week. This would be a great way to garner interest in film preservation, good synergy for Turner Classics and would restore some of the classic luster of the Chinese’s heyday. But wait, there’s more! My proposal to actually make this thing financially lucrative is to have a Friday or Saturday night premiere gala (where I guess conceivably you could charge higher admission) with a director, star or someone associated with the film in attendance for a pre or post-show discussion. And since the print's there, just show it for the rest of the week at a lower pricing rate for those who just want to watch the film. For example, if they showed The Godfather, perhaps Friday and Saturday night they could have Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino or James Caan doing an intro and discussion for an hour or so, with special premium pricing for $25 or something and then just show the Godfather for the rest of the week without the hullabaloo for like $10 Sunday through Thursday.

4.) Let the American Cinematheque Program the Theatre

The non-profit American Cinematheque has formed a strong niche with a focus on star and director driven special programming and annual events like their several weeks long Film Noir fest in April (I only attended once this year, for the Max Ophuls directed Caught, but the number of attendees for a special guestless performance on a Wednesday night was endearing) while saving two gems of theatres in the process: The Egyptian in Hollywood which had been twinned and abandoned, and the Aero in Santa Monica which was floundering. Since the Egyptian and the Chinese are in such proximity to one another, it’s very likely a difficult task to keep both theatres flourishing, but if anyone can do it, I am sure the American Cinematheque can.

5.) Alamo Drafthouse: Los Angeles

While I’ve never been to Austin, or Texas for that matter, when I finally do venture into the Lone Star state the first landmark that I hope to visit is not the actual Alamo (though I hear they have a lovely basement), Cowboy Stadium or the Houston Space Center, but the famous Alamo Drafthouse, brainchild of one Tim League. A theatre/restaurant created by and employed by movie lovers with a fiercely independent and unique sensibility which includes screenings of modern films of all stripes, specialty screenings with directors/actors in attendance (and a summer series off-shoot screening films in the locations they were shot, for example Close Encounters of the Third Kind at Devil’s Tower), weekly repertory screenings (Terror Tuesdays and Weird Wednesdays) and the annual Fantastic Fest: a film festival dedicated to genre and cult cinema, League has, with an eye towards community, successfully created a brand with loyalty and worldwide recognition (for naught was League given a special Thank You at the end of Grindhouse), and proved that with some fresh ideas and attention to quality, movie exhibition can still be a successful and rewarding experience for theatre operators and cinema goers in our modern online streaming era. And what’s more, word is out that he’s interested in bringing the Alamo to Southern California. Is there a location more appropriate and in need of him than the Chinese?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Posterized: Now Playing May 1981

Seeing how the whole apocalypse thing never materialized, let's take a gander at the films that were released in the United States thirty years ago this month.

A typical varied assortment of wonder and weirdness. This month features the likes of Richard Pryor, John Waters, David Bowie, Charles Bronson and Jason Vorhees.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Enter the Ninja (Menahem Golan)

Part of the 1981 Project

Combining two genre archetypes that would be their company’s bread and butter through the rest of the decade: the one man army and the ninja genre (sub-division: Caucasian ninja, see the American Ninja series for further studies), the Cannon Group’s Enter the Ninja, whose title familiarly cashes in on the cache of Bruce Lee’s most famous film (at least Stateside), yet proved prescient as it helped fan the flames of a fascination with Asian culture that would sweep the suburban youth of America in the 80’s, examples including but not limited to: the popular G.I. Joe comic/toys/television cartoon whose most popular character was Storm Shadow, Ernie Reyes Jr.’s sitcom Sidekicks, and the proliferation of karate and tae-kwon-do studios in virtually every strip mall in the US; and hey you are looking at no less an authority than a proud recipient of a skateboard with a giant Ninja emblazoned on its flipside at the age of ten (I never did learn how to ride that damn thing!) As for the film, it’s enjoyable b-movie material, with high camp tendencies, intentional or not.

Opening with a dialogue free ten minute sequence wherein a white clad ninja disperses several foes (a virtual Benton ad of Ninja diversity—okay, really only white, black and maroon, but that’s two more than most ninja films) concluding with the decapitation of a shinobi master that turns out to be a training initiation for Cole, the aforementioned Caucasian ninja, played by legendary Italian genre star Franco Nero whose mettle is comprised of 30% bravado and 70% moustache. Cole is so proud of his trail blazing accomplishment at being the first white guy to become an official ninja that he sports a white ninja uniform, though possibly that was a hazing ritual or a joke on the part of the other ninjas. I hate to offer unsolicited advice, but perhaps one of the reasons that the ninja is becoming an endangered species might have to do with the amount of money spent in realistic make-up and special effects for a mere initiation procedure. One whom is not happy at this new blow for ninja civil rights is Hasegawa (actual martial artist Sho Kosugi) who throws a hissy fit upon a non-Japanese man joining the ranks of the ninja elite.

Cole celebrates his new ninjadom by meeting up with old war buddy Landers (Alex Courtney), which war you may ask, well they mention Africa, Angola, so pretty much any war set in a country that starts with the letter “A” that can be replicated on the film’s Philippines locations, and his wife (Susan George) who live in a compound in Manila. While Cole perhaps imagined he would spend a relaxing vacation reminiscing with his buddy, eating adobo and partaking in some Pinay prostitutes, it isn’t long before he finds himself thrust into battle with a land baron named Charles Venarius (Christopher George) who wants the frequently drunk Landers’ home for the oil that lies under the land. And before you can say “it’s really hard to feel too sympathetic for a rich white carpetbagger who probably kicked out poor Fillipino farmers when he moved in there”, Cole is taking on a series of Venarius’ lackeys with the greatest of ease. Eventually Venarius hires a ninja to do his bidding, and lo and behold that hired assassin is none other than white ninja mortal enemy, Hasegawa. The shit is…on.

Directed and produced by Cannon co-head of operations Menahem Golan a year after the disastrous but now widely appreciated cult sci-fi musical fiasco The Apple, Enter the Ninja begs the question, is Golan either the most sincere person to ever work in Hollywood or really a sly comedic genius? The film’s ninja portions, roughly the opening ten minutes and the last half hour, are pretty straight forward and serious, but the rest of the film has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. This schizophrenic nature is evident in its structure where it feels like the producers forgot the title of the film for about fifty minutes. Probably more likely, this film was written (the script is credited to Dick Desmond, his only produced screenplay with co-story credit to Mike Stone, also only credit…perhaps pseudonyms?) as solely the one-man army story and Golan and co-producer Globus decided to insert ninjas to give it some distinction. Back to the campier nature of the film, this is the type of action movie where our hero rips off a guys attached hooked arm out while the “wah wah” sound effect is on the soundtrack, and ends with the same hero literally winking to the audience. So I got to assume that Golan is not a naïve guy and decided to heighten the outrageousness inherent in the material. To which I say, bravo good sir, you definitely enlivened what would be an otherwise dreadfully dull section of the film. Chief MVP has to main villain Christopher George who must have contracted a diabetes related illness from the amount of sweet scenery he chews. Playing his businessman heel as a spoiled petulant billionaire to whom human life has no value, other than his own, George’s Venarius is venal, crude and careless as he laughs off the deaths of his underlings and upon learning of Cole’s ninja skills whines “He’s a ninja! I want a ninja! Get me a ninja!” Unfortunately George died in 1983, or else I would have the perfect suggestion for casting the lead in the inevitable Donald Trump biopic.

Interestingly pretty much every character in the film is kind of a jerk. Obviously Venarius and his crew, but Cole is a solipsistic white guy who probably just became a ninja because he was into Japanese chicks, Landers is so bummed that his glory days of killing in the war is over he becomes a literally and figuratively impotent self-loathing alcoholic and his wife Mary Ann is having an adulterous affair with Cole. The only exception to the general prickiness of the characters is Hasegawa, whose view on who should or shouldn’t be a ninja are archaic true, but hey the shinobi date to the 15th century, I will allow for a bit of anachronistic conviction, and at least he has a personal moral code. Besides, much like O-Ren Ishi in Kill Bill, Hasegawa eventually learns to respect his Caucasian foe. Smartly, Golan and Cannon realized that though only a supporting character here, Kosugi was the draw for many viewers, and as such he’s featured (though as different characters since SPOILER: returning as Hasegawa would be difficult what with his lack of a head at the film’s conclusion) considering that he’s the only returning cast member in the two sequels: 1983’s Revenge of the Ninja and 1984’s Ninja III: The Domination.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrera)

Part of the 1981 Project

A low budget feminist variation on Death Wish, Abel Ferrera’s Ms. 45 exists in that shaded area on the Venn diagram where independent art film, sleazy early 80's New York grime, pitch black comedy and genre exploitation all intersect. The result is a wonderful concoction that to this viewer’s eyes exceeds its influence (and hey, I am a fan of the series, some moral misgivings aside, which I reviewed in its entirety here.)

The striking Zoe Lund plays Thana a mute seamstress who is frequently told by her boss, a man (natch), that she needs to work twice as hard to achieve the accomplishment of, his words not mine, “normal people”. Walking home from work one day, the virginal woman is raped in an ally by a masked vigilant (played by Ferrera). When she makes it home from that grueling endeavor she’s greeted in her one room apartment by a burglar in the midst of a robbery, who also begins to rape her. This time, however, she strikes back, killing him with her iron. She carves up the intruder and leaves his body parts throughout the NYC and with his gun in tow, the titular .45, begins walking around the city, blowing away a varied number of chauvinistic archetypes ranging from the minor annoyances to the absurd. Included in her vengeance’s wake are a hooting and hollering Brooklynite, a pimp, a Warriors’ like street gang, even a Sheik! As she kills, Thana becomes more attuned to her sexuality. Frumpy ill-fitting dresses and natural looks are replaced with au currant miniskirts, ruby red lipstick and stylish hairdos. But sexuality and empowerment lead to an increased mental instability culminating in a Carrie-esque massacre at a fashionable costume loft party, which include attendees dressed as Mr. Met and Ed Grimley.

The film is rife with symbols of sexual signifiers: the milieu of the fashion world, a woman lacking a voice, the use of an iron as her first weapon, the gun being a phallic representation/substitute; and Lund’s character conforms to a strict "ape shall not kill ape" moral code and appears physically unable to harm another female nor an animal, as displayed in one of the film’s funnier moments when she cannot bring herself to off a prime witness, her landlord’s yippy dog. But since it’s an exploitation film and rooted in the genre, it is far from didactic. Yet that never prevents it from having impactful moments such as Lund’s open mouth and ultimately futile attempt to scream for help. Lund gives a great performance, never letting the limitation of a mute character prevent her from being naturally expressive. She’s able to say so much with only facial gestures, fleeting looks and reactions, she plays both mousy and sexy with ease and is believable vulnerable, powerful and ultimately upon descending into madness.

Filled with authentic New York locations and actors, Ferrera keeps things running along at a good pace. The film is just north of 75 minutes, and masterfully balances the exploitative elements with both humanity and some wonderful dark comedy. Ms. 45 stands out from other of the Death Wish followers (and even the Death Wish films themselves) by containing a strong visual style such as the symbolic way the first shooting is framed, with Lund enveloping her victim, unique compositions of blood trickling on a newspaper, and heavy use of slow motion in the loft party breakdown. It’s a potent, enjoyable film that exceeds any expectations of its rape revenge trappings.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Further Lamentings for the Changing Ways We Watch Film

Having neglected this blog for a while I thought I would return and discuss two film related topics, one having to do with the possible fate of the world's most famous movie theatre, and the other, a recent discovery that returned me to a former favorite haunting ground, the video store.

To give some personal history, shortly after enrolling in college I worked at a movie theatre (the now demolished UA Metro Center in Colma, CA), and would work at three more before retiring from popcorn slinging. At some point, much like the trajectory of the films themselves, I inevitably ended up working at a video store. So, obviously I have a highly subjective view on these two topics, so take my discussion with the prerequisite ounce sized grain of salt.

What the hell is happening to the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre?

Will the world’s most famous movie theatre stop showing films on a regular basis soon? That’s the rumor as the bankrupt (and disgustingly poorly operated) Mann chain has sold it’s ownership rights to Elie Sa'maha and Don Kushner, movie producers and businessmen with an (apparent) disreputable history. A few weeks ago there were whisperings that the new owners planned to renovate the interior of the theatre to make it a trendy nightclub, because, I don’t know, I guess Hollywood doesn’t have enough venues for the young Hollywood elite to sniff cocaine off a hooker’s ass. At this point nothing has been confirmed, and this is all rumors and conjecture, though neither Sa'maha or Kushner have refuted anything, but as Rose McGowan so elegantly put it in Scream “you can only hear that Richard Gere gerbil story so many times before you start to believe it."

If that’s the case it will be the end of a slow and sad demise for the beautiful theatre (and historical landmark) as Mann failed to respond in any formidable way to changing trends and watched as the Arclight and the Cinerama Dome got the prime bookings and the Chinese was stuck with six to seven weeks run of such second tier titles like Paul, Book of Eli, and the nadir: a month plus run of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li a couple of years ago. I have to think when the news hits more mainstream press (and when the hell is that going to happen?) there will be some groundswell support to save the Chinese, and it’s a registered Historical Landmark so the building itself will still be there until the apocalypse hit (which is May 21st according to billboards around town….wait a minute that’s exactly the day after Mann’s lease runs out, coincidence or harbinger?). Mann’s final “fuck you” to Southern California film goers by not selling the Chinese to an actual theatre chain/operation, like the American Cinematheque or even Pacific which successfully operates the El Capitan right across the street, insures that I will be pissing on the ashes of the once mighty corporation.

If you live in a town with a one screen theatre you treasure, heed this warning: visit it often, because if the Chinese theatre’s future is uncertain, no theatre is safe.

Back to the video store

I am sadden to see the death of the video rental store, and guilty as everyone else. See the convenience of Netflix with no late fees and streaming options, as well as cable and a DV-R, has led me to forgo the experience of tolling the aisles. Like Mann’s demise, I have no love lost for the bankrupt corporations like Hollywood and Blockbuster video as they're more responsible for the death of independent mom and pop video stores than Netflix when backdoor deals enabled them to fill their shelves with hundreds of copies of whatever was the big release of the moment (I remember the original Fast and the Furious film particularly being one that customers at the shop I worked at saying they’d try big blue for) while keeping pathetically inept stock of older titles. The easy accessibility of porn online also was a crushing blow.

After visiting the South Pasadena Farmer’s Market one evening recently, my wife and I stepped inside Videotheque and my love affair with video rental stores was instantly rekindled. Full of titles on Blu-Ray, DVD and yes even for those not on either format, VHS, the store is obviously ran by cinema lovers as their genre section are further subdivided into sub-divisions such as: directors, stars and even genres within genres like silent films and giallos. How can I not love a place where Meiko Kaji is designated worthy of her own section!

Additionally they seem to upgrade titles that are reissued regularly (for example they have the recently released Criterion issue of Blow Out) and stock Warner Archive titles that are otherwise unavailable short of purchasing a hard or digital copy. The staff is knowledgeable but not pretentious, and it warms the cockles to see it full of customers on a Friday night.

If you live within a short drive of Eagle Rock/Pasadena, I cannot more highly recommend Videotheque, check it out.

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